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Putting Morality in its Place

tions and then hacking away at the rest of the paper
to fit it to the procrustean bed thus constructed has
not unnaturally led him astray.

Incidentally, I don’t think Sayers’ distinction
between ‘ordinary language philosophy’ and ‘theory’

is really of much use as a touchstone for diagnosing
what is reactionary about English-speakin~ philosophy
at the present time. The trouble is that the aim
of just ‘describing’ ordinary usage has been more
talked about than put into practice. I’m not at all
sure what Sayers means by ‘theory’, but if a theorist is anyone who dissents from the dictum that the
sole task of philosophy is to describe the logic of
ordinary usage, then not only am I a philosophical
theorist but virtually every significant philosopher
writing in English at the present time is a philosophical theorist.

Certainly this is true, to take just one example,
of Professor R. M. Hare, a philosopher whose views
I do not altogether share, but whom I greatly respect;
who seems to have become a regular aunt sally for
some Radical Philosophers, largely on the strength of
his article ‘A School for Philosophers’. Hare’s own
work, it seems to me, totally belies that article.

It is indeed one of life’s little ironies that a
man who can assert, with every appearance of complacency, that a philosophical doctrine must be
briefly stateable and wholly non-technical if it is
to receive a serious hearing at Oxford should himself be the author of two long books of great technical difficulty and complexity which expound a very
elaborate moral theory of the same general type as
Kant’s. Of course Hare claims inter alia that the
theory he constructs is implicit in the everyday
logic of ‘ought’ and other moral terms, but these
claims themselves serve a theoretical function in
protecting his doctrine against certain lines of
attack, mainly having to do with the well-known problems about naturalism. The fact that Hare’s methodological asides make him look a bit like Sayers’

straw man should not blind us to the fact that the
edifice which Hare’s methodology helps to support is
a ‘theory of morals’ in a quite traditional sense,
and one which bears upon many traditional, and
important, problems about morals. But perhaps
Sayers has some other sense of ‘theory’ in mind which
I simply don’t understand.

In short, although I don’t necessarily dissent
from the claim that some of the views, and perhaps a
lot of the views, characteristic of English-speaking
philosophy at the moment are in some sense reactionary (I wouldn’t accept the view that English-speaking
philosophy is reactionary root-and-branch, but then
‘English-speaking philosophy’ seems to me to designate a very mixed bag of views and tendencies and
not a single homogeneous entity), I cannot see that
the ordinary language/theory distinction gets us any
closer to discovering which, or why. I thought I wa~
attacking some rather reactionary views in my
article. But that had better be left now to speak
for itself to other readers.

Putting Morality in its Place
Few readers of Radical Philosophy (except perhaps
spies acting on behalf of non-radical philosophy)
are likely to disagree with Richard Norman’s description of recent moral philosophy as ‘inadequate’, or
with his insistence that those who practise it are
really committed to a morality of liberalism.

[See ‘Moral philosophy without morality?’ in Radical
Philosophy 6, pp2-7] And the hopes he expresses for
what moral – or rather ethical – philosophers ought
to be doing (‘articulating a workable set of ethical
concepts in terms of which one could direct one’s
life and activity’), and the wish that academic
philosophers would stop sneering at the suggestion
that philosophy has something to do with questions
about the meaning of life; these will find an enthu-

siastic audience in most of us too, certainly in me.

What does not arouse such agreement or enthusiasm
in me is the main body of the article. To be fair,
Norman himself has doubts about the validity of what
he sals; and I think he was right to have them.

Basically, he wants to replace an ethics of ‘morality’,
‘ought’, ‘duty’ and ‘virtue’ by one whose basic
concepts are ones like ‘health’, ‘harmony’, ‘selfrealization’, ‘integrity’ and so on. And it’s this
more positive section that gives me doubts.

To begin with, I don’t like the company he keeps.

The philosophers who have taken this sort of line in
the past – who have they been? Plato, Aristotle,
Bradley – are these the prophets of radicalism?

Great men, undoubtedly, but not quote those we should
normally expect to find lined up on the~ame side as
Radical Philosophy. They were not liberals, true;
but only because they were conservatives.

(It may be
significant that when Norman briefly considers
jettisoning the concept of ‘virtues’, it is Warnock
he criticizes, and not Aristotle or Plato.)
still, perhaps that isn’t really fair. The point
isn’t who else said something rather like what Norman
says, it’s what he says himself. Yet there are some
funny things in that too. If we take seriously the
question ‘What is it that screws up people’s lives?’

we are told, then, ultimately, the answer must be:

not individual failings and weaknesses, but corrupt
and oppressive institutions. It’s that ‘not’ that
bothers me. For its implication is that the unscrewed-up life is the life of the man who isn’t the
victim of corrupt and oppressive institutions. And
that suggest the man who is their beneficiary – the
aristocrat, the rentier, whom the institutions serve
and who hasn’t even got the troubles of an active
company director. The natural inference from Norman’s
position is that this is the man who is to provide
us with a model of the un-screwed-up-life, as far as
we can get one; maybe the institutions even screw
him up a little, but he’s the nearest we can get.

And surely he is not a good model; not for our lives
here and now, anyway. Explicit praise of the aristocrat may suit Nietzsche, but hardly Norman – even if
he does quote Nietzsche with approval.


Is he a good model for the future, then? Do we
hope ultimately for a Utopia in which everyone is
(more of less) like this ‘aristocrat’? That doesn’t
seem likely either. Even in Utopia people work; and,
what is more, some of them will need to do the unpleasant or monotous kinds of work. You can find
fulfilment in a great many callings, but there are
some that I suspect of having alienation built into
them. It’s not Utopia we need for a society of
perfectly fulfilled citizens; it’s Paradise.

But of course the ‘aristocrat’ I’ve been de~crib­
ing isn’t Norman’s ideal in the least, and I’ve had
to admit it. In fact, the ‘balanced’ man in a
corrupt society is as defective as anyone else; he
is nicely adapted to crooked surroundings, and when
they get straightened out he will no longer be
balanced. Granted. But that only makes my point
more clearly; it isn’t balance or harmony or selfrealization that constitutes the ethical ideal. At
the most, it’s what would be balanced or harmonious
in an uncorrupted society, and that only because in
an uncorrupted society a man could presumably live
the ideal life without getting unbalanced. In an
oppressive society the man who truly responds to his
higher self will be a misfit, and quite right too.

That is how radicals, revolutionaries, and even
reformers, are made.

Do we then want to reinstate ‘Morality’ after
all, with its old Apparatus of ‘good’, ‘right’,
‘ought’, ‘duty’ and so on? I suspect that it has
got a place, though only a subordinate one.

(It
seems to creep back even into Norman’s sketch of the
healthy individual; isn’t the ‘higher self’ rather
like an improved and more humane version of the
Kantian legislative will – as well as being a nearliteral translation of ‘super-ego’?) It has a place
for two reasons. Firstly because, as Norman says,
even the healthy individual (even, I should add, in
an uncorrupted society) can’t really act all the time

39

on impulse.

He will have to weigh possibilities and
come to decisions, and those decisions are practically certain to contain ‘oughts’, and those moral
‘oughts’, not just ‘oughts’ of advice.

Secondly,
because we aren’t all of us healthy, and morality
may be the best we can manage a lot of the time.

The trouble with a Norman-style ethics, which
praises spontaneous and ‘genuine’ altruism but not
the altruism that springs from masochism and
frustrated aggressions, is that it is psychologically
aristocratic even when it isn’~ socially so. What
is the poor devil who ‘”s got this masochistic hangup
to do? the man who isn’t ‘secure in his own identity’,
who would like to give freely of himself but can’t?

Is he somehow predestined to ethical damnation,
someone whom the moral philosopher in his health
needn’t bother to notice?

It seems a bit hard on
him. Perhaps he can be given ‘morality’ as a secondbest? It does, after all, seem to be more or less
what he needs.

In fact, isn’t this pretty much what
Kant said – that the moral, dutiful, law-abiding will
is only a second-best, that a holy will would be
heyond that? The only thing is, Kant evidently
thought that for practical purposes we’d better concentrate on the second-best.

(Whether he was right
or not is another matter; probably not.)
Obviously,
the more the Moral Man is aware of the defects in
himself and his morality the better.

If he recognises
that there’s a masochistic element in his altruism,
or that the call of duty has been using his superego as a megaphone, and in all probability getting
the message distorted in the process – why, his
altruism will be the more rational for it, and his
discrimination in listening to duty’s voice the
sharper.

So I’d like to reinstate morality, provided that
it keeps its place.

But if morality is only a secondbest, what comes first? I’ve already said why I
don’t think an ethic of health or self-realization
will do. There’s another reason too: it is only
negatively egalitarian. This is a defect it shares
with liberalism. Neither of them really cares about
others. Of course, individual liberals, even
individual aristocrats, may do so; but that’s an
accident, so to speak. The liberal leaves people to
their own life-styles – to the life-styles of ‘men
of action, dedicated artists, religious recluses
or professional golfers’ (and, presumably, to the
‘life-styles’ of refuse-collectors, subsistence
peasants, lavatory attendants, geriatric nurses or
members of the dole-queue?). The ‘aristocrat’ takes
a paternal interest in less fortunate souls when he
meets them, but to wear himself to the bone looking
for them isn’t truly harmonious. Aristotle’s
‘megalopsuchos’, one remembers, was slow to action
unless great deeds offered themselves; and I suspect
that the healthy, well-balanced man is the same.

His fundamental interest is in the realization of
his own self. Norman wants to commit himself politically because it makes sense in terms of his own
life. This sounds hideously like a Warnockian lifestyle. Suppose it doesn’t make sense in terms of my
personal life? or suppose a reactionary commitment

does?

But what the radical wants is for others to
realize themselves too – and to have decent selves
to realize, at that. Neither of these ethics suits
him. A Kantian ethic might do at a pinch, as the
‘others’ are ends in themselves for Kant; but, as
we’ve seen, Kantianism is only a second-best even for
Kant.

Is there anything we can think of that will
do better?

Norman quotes from The German Ideology as rejecting the idea of ‘preaching morality’ or ‘loving one
another and not being egoists’. But Marx and Engels
were not quite as extreme as Norman was in his
preceding lines. They only said that in definite
circumstances egoism was as necessary as selfsacrifice. Norman goes further, and says that those
who are deprived of power and wealth are under no
obligation to forego their own interests, but should
on the contrary assert them, a~2arently setting self-

40

sacrifice aside altogether.

I imagine he has been
misled into this by the context of his remarks (the
supposed ‘social contract’ by which it seems the
poor promise not to disturb the rich, who in return
undertake to leave their poverty alone). But misled
he is. For in our present society, the abler a man
is, the more Norman’s principle will encourage him
to hold with the existing system and get on in it
as far as he can, to move from the have-nots to the
haves. It’s not easy, and he’ll probably fail, but
it’s a good deal easier than bringing about a
revolution.

(If a revolution does come, the asserter
of his own interest will of course be chiefly concerned to make sure he comes out on the winning
side, and as high up on that side as he can manage.)
It seems a funny situation in whic~ radicalism would
be confined to those least able to advance it. Would
not the deprived do better each of them to sacrifice
his own interests, in part anyway, to those of his
class, or even of humanity?

It is an odd thing that the biblical quotation
echoed in the passage from The German Ideology, and
also (I think) in a formula rejected earlier on in
Norman’s article (‘One cannot love others unless one
also loves oneself’) isn’t actually quoted in full
anywhere in the article. Yet I should have thought
that ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’

would be a better basis for one’s life than Norman’s
suggested egocentric ethics.

It doesn’t seem to ask
for compulsive behaviour or external motivation
(except that in its original context it is presented
as an injunction from God). It doesn’t insist on
an artificial level of altruism; it gives the agents’

own interests a place. But it is unquestionably
egalitarian, and couldn’t possibly be called merely
liberal, nor aristocratic.

The problem is – and here we come back to agreeinq with Norman once more – to sort out an ethical
philosophy on such a basis. Maybe that’s what the
Utilitarians were trying to do, even if they didn’t
have much success. We need a richer set of concepts
than they operated with, or than contemporary British
moral philosophy operates with – or rat~er on (consider how weak and impoverished a word ‘good’ is by
the time they’ve finished with it!) And here Norman
is certainly right; and probably most of the concepts
he suggests could find some place on ‘my’ list too,
though their place might, like that of ‘morality’,
be a subordinate one in many cases.

(They might, for
example, be needed when one tried to work out what
loving one’s neighbour – or oneself – amounted to
in practice.)
Most ethical theories have set before their
adherents some sort of an ideal. In some instances
this was social (the utilitarians would be an example);
in others individualist (Plato; Kant, at times;
Heidegger).

It is a peculiarity of most contemporary
British moral philosophy that it has no ideals at all;
it is apt to leave the reader wondering ‘Why should
I bother to be moral?’

It would never stir anyone to
great deeds, even to great goodness; worse, it would
discourage anyone who felt called to such, by its
relentless interest in trivialities. My only quarrel
with Norman is that I think he’s filling the vacancy
with a poor candidate; I want something that recognises my fellow men more; but the vacancy needs to
be filled all right.

Richard Sturch
Electric shock treatment could replace the cane if
corporal punishment in schools were banned by law,
Mr Terry Casey, general secretary of the National
Assoc’ia tion of Schoolmasters, told a conference in
Birmingham last week.

OUtlawing of the cane would mean greater use of
illegal and irregular punishments, he said. One
science teacher had disciplined boys by passing a
mild electric current through them, using equipment
in the physics laboratory.

Times Educational Supplement, 4 January 1974

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